theater (reviews)

review: the red shoes

The Red Shoes

Based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen
Poems by Anna Maria Murphy
Additional text by Mike Shepherd
Adapted and directed by Emma Rice
Featuring Patrycja Kujawska, Giles King, Dave Mynne, Mike Shepherd
St. Ann’s Warehouse, 38 Water Street (corner of Water and Dock), Brooklyn
production web site: http://www.stannswarehouse.org/current_season.php?show_id=57
November 19, 2010 — December 12, 2010

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
December 2, 2010

“the girl” and “the butcher” (Marcus Yam for The New York Times)

The ensemble rules in Kneehigh Theatre‘s presentation of Emma Rice‘s creation/adaptation The Red Shoes currently in residence at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.  The big blowzy superficial (and some say romantic) Brief Encounter by the same company, now running at Studio 54, provided me with an introduction to the aesthetic of Ms. Rice’s work: abstracting and reconstructing shards of meaning and stage imagery from source materials into something new.  In the case of Brief Encounter, she draws upon a Noel Coward play and short story and a beloved British film, then abstracts and reconstructs a pastiche that moves some, and leaves others a bit cold.  Physical movement and dance and acrobatics and on stage music and occasional singing and hanging from a jungle gym-like apparatus, accompanied by projections and scrims complete that experience. In The Red Shoes, a restaged earlier work (I learn from the playbill Director’s Note), is a more streamlined, or perhaps unencumbered, production assembled in similar fashion from existing sources: different versions of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of a poor girl who is taken in and is punished for her passion for dance/red/unconventional style.  The acrobatic events are here, dancing in clogs (ah, those Scandinavians, we love our clogs), and the music is here.  And the distanced experience is also here.  I impose a theatrical (read: text-based) sensibility on what does indeed appear to be a primarily and delightfully movement-based aesthetic of this dance company.  For my money, The Red Shoes is a more successful, simpler, less encumbered adventure.

Lady Lydia (Giles King) is our guide to the action from atop the same kind of jungle gym apparatus, one story up, that is used in the staging of Brief Encounter — she and the story’s characters can climb up to observe and climb down to participate in the action below.  Part Tim Curry as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, mad scientist in drag from the film version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), part M.C. from Cabaret (select any incarnation), Lady Lydia comments on, sings to, conducts the action of the story telling below — she selects the actors to portray certain roles, dangles certain props into play from her perch, etc.  Two men on stage provide instrumental accompaniment.  Three men and one woman in big-boy-underwear dusty dirty cotton briefs and sleeveless undershirt wander onto the stage (they have been wandering in the theatre lobby for about 15 minutes before the action begins), carting brown suitcases on which are painted labels with the costumes that reside within: “the girl”, “the old lady”, “the preacher”.  It’s a fun gambit: Lady Lydia points her walking stick from above and silently commands certain stripped down actors to open select cases, don suggestions of costume (a hat, a piece of clothing) and become that character.

Patrycja Kujawska becomes the young girl, our shoe obsessed character, and is taken in by a blind old lady (Dave Mynne) who attempts to socialize her.  Etiquette, church confirmation, the wearing of shoes rather than going barefoot.  That kind of thing.  The girl selects red rather than black shoes (the old lady’s preference) lies about her choice, appears before the church in white confirmation dress and her red fashion statement, and this causes a ruckus.  Here the story telling becomes a bit muddied — but suffice it to say that the girl may or may not have been somehow cosmicly punished for these indiscretions by not being able to stop dancing in these shoes.  And forced (as the production image included here suggests) to go to a butcher (Mike Shepherd) to resolve her trauma — the shoes can’t be removed normally (ah, our Oz-ian ruby slippers) so she proposes that he cuts off her feet entirely and construct replacement wooden feet.

Are the shoes supernatural?  Are we haunted by our dreams?  Can we live with uncontainable passions?  Does Emma Rice successfully work through these themes in this production?  I don’t believe there is coherent storytelling here but I do say that it is wondrous to watch — the performers are top-notch, the stage images are sometimes absolutely stunning.  When I put down my own passions for clarity in storytelling and just go with the sensations, I find this production is a delight.  With ruby slippers.

© Martha Wade Steketee (December 3, 2010)

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